Beware ‘The Wolf of Wall Street’

Focusing on con artists and greedy hucksters selling dreams that rarely come true, “The Wolf of Wall Street” is an entertaining, well-acted, comedic, and sadly, reasonably accurate film.
 
Although intensely exaggerated, the highly successful Hollywood extravaganza epitomizes the classic bucket shop investment bank, selling mostly worthless penny stocks via high pressure telephone solicitations, principally to unsuspecting individual investors, and tantalizing entrepreneurs who want to take their very small companies public.
 
From Charles Ponzi to Bernie Madoff, there is a long history of questionable behavior on Wall Street. The wolf, or rather wolves, never really left. In fact, the sordid creatures may be creeping back into the hood with the stock market’s stellar performance. According to one law firm, DLA Piper, even though 2013 saw the lowest number of SEC enforcement actions (68) in the past decade, word has it that this year and beyond, the SEC plans to bring record numbers of sanctions using new tools and resources.
 
In a bulletin to its clients and prospects, the law firm noted that whistleblower bounties and tips are on the rise and that the Dodd-Frank whistleblower bounty program is gaining steam, with informants potentially receiving as much as 30 percent of any monetary recoveries. On October 1 last year, the SEC awarded its largest bounty to date, $14 million, which itself may drive the number of tips higher in 2014.
 
Mid last year, the SEC’s enforcement unit announced it had formed the Financial Reporting and Audit Task Force, comprised of lawyers and accountants throughout the United States tasked with identifying issuer violations. This august group has a tool in its arsenal, affectionately known as RoboCop, which allows it to determine whether an issuer’s financial statements stick out from the pack. Other tools are supposedly in the works that will analyze text portions of annual reports for potentially misleading disclosures.
 
According to the bulletin, with the amount of new resources and tools the SEC is devoting to detecting financial reporting violations, an expectation is growing that the agency will bring a greater number of enforcement actions in the future. In June of last year, SEC Chair Mary Jo White said that in certain cases, the SEC will not settle unless the defendants admitted wrongdoing, so more companies, officers and directors may be testing the SEC’s allegations and legal positions by litigating and going to trial.
 
The largest number of enforcement actions in any one year during the past decade was 219 in 2007. We’ll see what happens in 2014. But wolves everywhere, beware.
 
– Roger Pondel, rpondel@pondel.com